If David Lynch needs a choreographer–or an evil lighting designer, for that matter–I have just the men in mind: Jack Arnold and David Ferri. They’re the pair responsible for Missing Tenderness, a work that must be considered an early contender for the Most Understated Dance Title of the year. Its premiere proved one of the highlights of the NCSU Dance Company Spring Concert last weekend. As Roger Kleier’s electronics and electric guitar invoked a raga-like drone, floor lights at the foot of the Stewart Theater thrust stage cast a grayish, almost greasy, pallor on six cold beauties in black and silver evening dress. The dancers, posed with crossed arms and tilted heads, stood in a line before the closed stage curtain. The small suspended mirror chips hung above them would have evoked the mirror ball of some 1950s ballroom–if the illumination had once touched them. Instead, Ferri’s rectangular box of negative light ended just inches above the women’s heads.
After dreamily moving their hands, caressing various body parts, half of the sextet began to slowly walk forward. By then I half expected Michael J. Anderson, the diminutive actor from Twin Peaks and Carnivale, to come twisting–and talking–backwards, out from the wings. But perhaps the eeriest moment of this opening sequence came at the end when Ferri’s lights somehow created four distinct shadows–where six dancers stood.
Of course, lighting mind games are nothing new for the designer who effectively rendered entire sections of Shen Wei’s Beyond Resonance visible in only two dimensions–in real time, during its performance–at 2003’s American Dance Festival. Here, his trompe l’oeil underscored Anderson’s ostensible premise: When it comes to mediated images of female beauty, there’s less–and more–going on than meets the eye.
The critique continued through the punk agonistes of Jon Spencer’s “Backslider,” as dancers pulled at their hair and twitched as if trying to shake off the projections of gender. These demonstrations segued to out-and-out mockery during Marlene Dietrich’s tribute to jaded love from The Blue Angel, “I’ve Been in Love Before.” Women pressed both hands towards the center of their faces, pooching their lips in exaggerated kisses, while others aped the alleged postures of desire. Still, even if they were temporarily interrupted, the templates of desire appeared to stay permanently affixed. At the end of this dingy cotillion, we didn’t need a cold shower so much as a hot bath–with strong lye soap–to help scrape some of the layers of smarm off.
Before that, Holding Angels, a new work by Megan Marvel, appeared at times a choreographic interpretation of Wendy Wasserman’s Uncommon Women and Others. A quartet of women in Meg Shouse’s pitch-perfect mid-century costumes enacted a community of support and intriguing interrelationships. But as things proceeded, their number slowly dwindled as each one fell behind at the end of the sections that featured them. Gradually, we sensed that Holding Angels dealt with how we leave our friends behind–at college’s beginning or its end, or other life transitions.
The last woman standing at the end of Angels carefully tended the memories of the other three: removing the others’ shoes and placing them beside each, just so. Then she rose and made an enigmatic gesture with her hands. “The museum of the memory is now closed,” it seemed to say. “I have done all I can do.”
It was good to see Blanche, Robin Harris’ tribute to 1920s Chattanooga Times reporter Blanche Clift, reconstituted on stage. By the end of this melancholic quartet of dances, the superimposed bridal bed of daisies–as opposed to roses–had resolved into a empty, bier-like surface. Ferri’s lighting made its surfaces look like ancient bone, as Harris’ choreography for Megan Marvel referenced Dante’s Beata Beatrix, with a bedsheet suggesting a shroud. If anything, time since its 1997 premiere has sharpened the irony of a family life reporter whose career desires and obsessions ironically seem to have locked herself out of a family life of her own.
While I have enjoyed the sly humor of Yoko Ono’s early conceptual art, I confess I have never been a fan of her music. This probably disadvantages me regarding Harris’ new work, That Lake in the Mountain, in which a suite of her songs is briefly joined by music from Sam Piperato, John Lennon and Jody Elff.
Ono’s evanescent vocals and airy, transparent settings match Harris’ images, in which a few striking, sharp details–a sudden gesture, a suitcase or the enigmatic contents found inside–are meant to evoke a missing landscape, journey or time. With her usual finesse, Harris evokes surprise with these visual near-haikus. A line of suitcases becomes a bridge a woman travels. A set of valises bring forth spyglass, touchstones, sand and water.
But the sum of these images and movements leave more gaps for us to fill in than in some of Harris’ work. The clearest sense here is one of women traveling–and one woman carefully unpacking memories of travel later on. Like early morning fog, the rest of Mountain burns off, perhaps too easily, leaving little behind.